Feedback

I’m feeding back to Yr11. They have just completed mock examinations in GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature.  The process has several aims.  The broader aim is to provide accurate information about where the cohort is at this point in time.  We know what the targets are; we need to know how are they performing in relation to those.  The narrower aim is to ensure that individual students know their strengths and area for development.  They need clear instruction on how to improve.  This is the most important outcome.

Ok, so far so straightforward.  We all know the evidence: formative assessment with lots of feedback, alongside structured opportunities to use that feedback, enhances achievements.  It seems self-evident.  And yet my through my reading and lurking on various threads I’m not convinced that, as teachers of English, we have fully grasped what feedback is (and isn’t).  Even a short spell on Twitter reveals an abundance of methodological and pedagogical approaches towards what (in my mind anyway) has always been simple.  My theory is that the exponential growth of ways in which we provide feedback is probably linked to a collective nervousness about what constitutes outstanding practice.  I’ve certainly seen many examples of feedback strategies that appear to prioritise form over content; image over impact.  But it’s just a theory…

Of the thousands of lessons that I’ve taught and the hundreds I’ve observed, these are the salient points around which I base practice.

Feedback is not advice or guidance; it’s not a judgement.  Feedback is framed by its reference to goals.  In the English examinations this means that comments should relate to the purpose of the piece.  Any comments can only be considered to be feedback if they relate to being on track towards meeting that goal or if the student needs to think about a different strategy in their attempt to meet that goal.

Feedback needs to be clear; it is not feedback if the student has to work out what they think you mean.  Feedback should be tangible and explicit.  It should be evident what the student needs to do to improve because feedback needs to be actionable.  Students should know what they need to do more or less of next time round in order to improve.

Feedback is for the students only.  Feedback is not the place for a teacher to demonstrate their own subject knowledge, or the place to demonstrate that they are meeting their own performance targets. If the student cannot understand it, if it is too technical, if it is confusing, or if there is simply too much of it it becomes counterproductive.

Feedback is timely; the sooner the student gets it the better.  It doesn’t need to be immediate, but the memory of the learning needs to be fresh and clear.  Timely feedback can be sought in a range of places and contexts.  Peer assessment and review can be really useful in this regard if students have been taught what feedback is and isn’t.

Feedback should be ongoing.  This means that there should be plenty of opportunities to make use of it. Highly performing people in all areas of life have the learned ability to very quickly adapt and adjust their performance in light of feedback.  The value of formative assessment is the fact that it precedes summative assessments.  Their is little (if any value) to feedback if there isn’t the subsequent opportunity to make use of it.

Feedback should be consistent; the more accurate it is the better.  This means (particularly at this point in the development of the new specifications) that teams should be standardising, moderating, sharing, discussing, and focusing on how marks are being allocated.  Avoiding the inevitable “we don’t know what these grades mean” should be a priority.  We know what sophisticated reading and writing looks like; that should be the starting point for embedding consistency.

A work in progress

I wrote the following in September 2002.  I was new in post as Second in English at Darwen Moorland High School (which closed in August of 2008).  I was a participant in a project that was coordinated by the Excellence in Cities initiative.  The writing was an attempt to reflect on learning, teaching, and progress in a school that, twelve months later, would be placed into Special Measures by Ofsted. 

“Yeah, it works. The plug’s a bit funny though. You might need to push it into the socket really hard.”

And with that my colleague leaves, heel-clicking his way down the ‘O Block’ corridor while happily singing a line from ‘Home On The Range’.

I look up hoping to see twenty nine faces.  Instead what meets me is an assortment of youngsters, most of whom are looking anywhere but at the front of the room; all I can see are the sides of their heads.  They look like they would rather be anywhere else but in my GCSE English class.  They aren’t misbehaving…yet.  They do look decidedly disinterested in what I am about to impart. Some chew gum; some attempt an impromptu experiment to test the strength of chair legs; some look timid, shy, embarrassed to be here; and others look like most teenagers I’ve worked with previously: a bewildering mixture of confidence, timidity, nervousness, arrogance, wit, and intelligence.

I push the plug in to the socket as hard as I can.

The TV screen is tiny. It is one of those TV/VHS combos and it represents the extent of the technology that I have to work with; oh, I also have a black marker pen.  Other than that it is going to be relationships, relationships and relationships that will get me to a position where I can teach well enough for the students to complete the five pieces of missing coursework.  At least I think that it is five.  No-one really seems to know exactly what they have completed.

I’ve devised a piece of media coursework that compares two film texts.  More specifically it aims to compare the  CGI violence in some scenes from Gladiator with the slapstick violence in There’s Something About Mary.  I think that the choice of material, alongside the focus for the assessment, will generate some interest, and by using that as a starting point I can build some momentum with a group that the Headteacher describes as ‘challenging’.  It’s little wonder.  They have had a succession of supply teachers throughout Year Ten, including one who liked to play guitar to them.  What they haven’t had is the structured opportunity to complete any of their coursework.  Now, with their final year underway, they know that they are behind.

I press play.

Someone shouts, “It’s crap, this.”

I press pause.

Problem.  The comment is loud and aimed in my direction.  I have no idea who said it though.  It is to be my first test.  But, before I can do anything about it it happens again, only this time it is accompanied by laughter.

“It’s crap, this.”

Now I’ve only been teaching for two years.  I don’t have the experience to defuse this situation with a group that I don’t know.  I do however have my marker pen. So I decide to write it out on the whiteboard.  Large, thick letters.

IT’S CRAP, THIS.

Not a sound; no-one laughs when I repeat it clearly.  I can sense the room shift slightly.  Chairs are being lowered.  Voices are hushed.  I have their attention.  It can be uncomfortable when 29 pairs of eyes stare in your direction; for a teacher it is a gift.  I take full advantage.

“What’s the problem with this statement?  Why would we not write this about the films in our coursework?” I ask.  It’s a risky question, but at this point in time it is all that I have.

A lone voice, “It’s not good English.”

“Great.  What would be a better way of phrasing this?”  I tap at the board paying particular emphasis to the very word that has unexpectedly initiated the discussion.

Some hands.  Great.  Some shouting out too; but I can live with that for now.  At least I can see their faces.

“Why don’t we write down some better ways of saying this.”

Then another voice, “But what if I like the films?” and, “We’ve not even seen the films yet.”

And so it starts.  We look at the clips; we read lines of dialogue that I’ve typed up.  Over the next few weeks they start to trust me enough to enable them show me their efforts. They are raw.  They know about films, they understand the violence, but they don’t have the language to be able to write effectively about them.  So I model phrases relentlessly.  My conversations with them are peppered with the key words that I’d like them to use eventually in their own responses.  Perhaps most importantly, I explain that what they do now, as Year 11 students, will have an impact on their final grades.  This is the purpose of coursework, I explain: you can make progress now that we can measure, and this will contribute towards your final grade.  The thoughts that you have now, the very thoughts that you write down, can help you to write pieces of work that will have an impact on your final grades.

I repeat my mantra, “Together, you can make progress.”

They say that they are enjoying the work.  I ignore them because it is still the honeymoon period where classes will often flatter you in the hope of getting you to ease off the pace later on in the year.  But at heart I know that they are enjoying it because they are starting to ask about grades.  This is a tangible benefit of coursework: you can structure it to contribute towards a purposeful working environment.  And boy do they need to be purposeful.  For most the notion of writing at length is novel and they are initially reluctant to do it; but as they start, cross out, and start again they start to see the point.  A couple of students look like they might actually be enjoying it.

Another benefit of coursework: imagination and enjoyment.  The only limits to what you can do are practical.  In a school like this, with resources as poor as outcomes, these practical considerations are real, frustrating, and serve to further the all too evident inequalities between schools.  But with a teacher’s imagination and resilience, coursework becomes the place where risks can be taken and where students can find their voice in ways that the examinations simply do not have the flexibility to accommodate.  I take every opportunity to explain that this is what writers do: think, draft, redraft, edit.

So, I’m making the most of the fact that these Year Eleven students are behind.  I’ve changed my mindset: they have five opportunities to demonstrate that their efforts will contribute towards their final grades in a meaningful way.  I enjoy the fact that students are peppering their conversations with me with references to grades, drafting, and redrafting.

Nobody has repeated that it’s crap, this.  That appears to have been edited out.